Flying a Non-hub Airline

Almost everyday I see people complaining on social media about the woes of airline (and hotel) elite status being downgraded or devalued. Like, just because they're the highest frequent flyer tier on an airline, they never get an upgrade. Or the points aren't as "valuable" as they were previously. I get it  those people likely spent thousands of dollars on airfare and want to be rewarded for it. But that kind of entitled and whiny attitude bothers me. A lot. So much so that I'm writing a blog post about it.

First off, I believe travel is a privilege, not a right. Until the turn of the twenty-first-century or so, flying was classy. You dressed up and the on-board service often reflected the classiness. Even in coach/economy. You had space and a decent meal, even when flying a shorter hop. Nowadays economy-class meals aren't served unless it's a long/international flight, leg-room is tight, and people wander on an airplane in their pajamas and make life difficult for the in-flight personnel and their fellow passengers. But so what. I still dress nicely on a plane, stay as pleasant as possible out of respect for the crew, eat what I'm served, and sit where I booked. Because, the fact is, I get to fly through the sky on a throne like a God. I mean, come on. That's amazing! Be grateful you're not spending months on horseback or on a ship. But I digress...

Still, if upgrades are what you desire, I've found a trick that often helps. Like most of my travel hacks, I'm reticent to share, because once I do, it becomes public knowledge and then it's not so secret anymore...usually to my personal detriment. Still, my blog posts are not popular, so here's a tip that's helped me score upgrades more often: Fly a non-hub airline.

What I mean here is, in the US, the "Big Three" airlines have certain airports where they are dominant. For example: 

  • American's mains hubs are Charlotte, Chicago-O'Hare, Dallas/Fort Worth, Miami, Philadelphia, Phoenix–Sky Harbor, and Washington-National
  • Delta's main hubs are Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Salt Lake City, and Seattle
  • United's main hubs are Chicago O'Hare, Denver, Guam, Houston George Bush Intercontinental, Newark Liberty, San Francisco, and Washington Dulles
A couple of the hubs overlap, and in those cases, the airline has it's own, dedicated terminal at that airport, so upgrades are still difficult to clear there. These overlap hubs include airports like:
  • Chicago (American and United), Los Angeles (American, Delta, United) and New York-JFK and New York-La Guardia (American and Delta).
What this means is, if you hold elite status with, say, United, the chance of you getting an upgrade from/to Denver on a United flight is tougher than if you were a Delta frequent flyer flying to/from Denver, since the pool of United frequent flyers in Denver is a LOT higher than Delta frequent flyers.

So, if you want to increase your chance of an upgrade from your hub, select a frequent flyer program from a non-hub airline. For example, if your hub is Phoenix-Sky Harbor, choose Delta or United as your primary carrier.

There are a couple drawbacks to this, however:
  • There will be fewer flights from the non-hub airlines.
  • Available flights might be offered only at inconvenient times (e.g., early morning or red eye).
  • There are also, generally speaking, fewer direct flights on a non-hub airline, so you'll have to connect at the non-hub airline's hub. Like, if you fly American Airlines from Salt Lake to Atlanta, you may have only one flight option, and it would likely route you through Dallas/Ft. Worth, meaning you'll end up having a layover in Dallas en route to/from Atlanta.
    • Although in this instance, your likelihood of an upgrade would be very high, since both Salt Lake and Atlanta are Delta hubs.
    • In another example, if you flew Salt Lake to Miami on American, you'd probably route through Dallas/Ft. Worth, and would likely get upgraded from SLC to DFW, but not from Dallas to Miami (since DFW and MIA are AA hubs).
Still, for me, this technique has resulted in upgrades at least to the hub, which can be nice, especially on the return flight. And once at the hub, I have lounge access to relax between my flights and get some tasty food and drink thanks to my credit cards!

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